A COVID-19 portrait project aims to keep those lost from being forgotten

There’s a bucket of glue waiting for you at RedLine art space if you want to paste your own portrait on the growing wall of victims, survivors and front line workers.

Stella Yu holds a picture of Gary Eloriaga, who died from COVID-19 in March. He will be memorialized here ouside of the Redline Contemporary Art Center as part of the COVID Walls project. Sept. 3, 2020.

Stella Yu holds a picture of Gary Eloriaga, who died from COVID-19 in March. He will be memorialized here ouside of the Redline Contemporary Art Center as part of the COVID Walls project. Sept. 3, 2020.

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Gary Eloriaga was the family jokester, the eldest of five brothers whose families were incredibly tight. It was the early days of the pandemic when they all gathered together for a housewarming party in Aurora. A few days later, his sister-in-law Lorraine said, the family began reporting sickness in their group chat.

“We just sort of tracked our symptoms together,” she said. “The next thing we know, we’re encouraging Gary to go to the hospital.”

Twenty-nine members of Eloriaga’s family became infected that day in March, just before officials nationwide began imposing lock downs to prevent the virus from spreading. Nine of them were hospitalized and, on March 28, Gary died. It was just days before his 55th birthday.

“How different three weeks can make in your life. You never know,” Lorraine said. “He was in the prime of his life. Really healthy. Really fit. Loved to travel, loved his family.”

Last week, a photo of Eloriaga’s face was pasted to a wall outside RedLine art space in Five Points. He’s one of a growing number of victims, survivors and essential workers featured there as part of a new project called COVID Walls.

Artist Sammy Lee pastes portraits of essential workers to a wall outside of the RedLine Contemporary Art Center as part of the COVID Walls project. Sept. 3, 2020.

Artist Sammy Lee pastes portraits of essential workers to a wall outside of the RedLine Contemporary Art Center as part of the COVID Walls project. Sept. 3, 2020.

Stella Yu, the artist and educator who dreamed up the project, said she hopes society doesn’t forget people like Eloriaga. By pasting faces of those affected, the city may see the pandemic’s impact with clearer eyes.

“I want people to remember that this is real. That not just this family has lost somebody that they love, but it’s a big loss to our community, to humanity,” Yu said.

To date, over 300 people have died of the disease in Denver. The virus has killed almost 900,000 people worldwide.

Artist Sammy Lee pastes portraits to a wall outside of the RedLine Contemporary Art Center as part of the COVID Walls project. Sept. 3, 2020.

Artist Sammy Lee pastes portraits to a wall outside of the RedLine Contemporary Art Center as part of the COVID Walls project. Sept. 3, 2020.

While Yu and artist Sammy Lee have focused on the wall at RedLine, where Lee was a recent resident, Yu hopes this first installation will inspire people to paste many more faces throughout the city. COVID Walls is less an organized project than an idea she hopes will spread across the nation like the virus that inspired it. Yu said she’d be delighted to discover people have pasted their own portraits around Denver and in other cities.

If you want help, Lee said you can ask the front desk at RedLine for a bucket of wheat-pasting supplies and they’ll allow you to stick your own portraits to their wall. You can also send Yu and Lee photos to paste for you.

Lee said the process itself is healing, which is one reason she hopes people take the opportunity to glue portraits up themselves.

“It’s a very cathartic process. Cleaning the wall and just brushing and rubbing their faces. I think it’s a good thing if they get to do it on their own,” she said.

As she works to get the momentum going, Yu has reached out to people she knows, like Lorraine Eloriaga, who have lost loved ones. Another face pasted next to Gary’s last week belonged to Troy Lopez, who was related to her hair stylist and also succumbed to the virus.

Artist Sammy Lee pastes a portrait of Tony Lopez to a wall outside of the RedLine Contemporary Art Center as part of the COVID Walls project. Sept. 3, 2020.

Artist Sammy Lee pastes a portrait of Troy Lopez to a wall outside of the RedLine Contemporary Art Center as part of the COVID Walls project. Sept. 3, 2020.

Artist Sammy Lee pastes portraits to a wall outside of the RedLine Contemporary Art Center as part of the COVID Walls project. Sept. 3, 2020.

Artist Sammy Lee pastes portraits to a wall outside of the RedLine Contemporary Art Center as part of the COVID Walls project. Sept. 3, 2020.

Yu said she expects some affected families may be wary of reliving pain brought by the pandemic this summer. Others, like Lorraine, are glad to see their loved ones memorialized.

“It gives a voice. It gives a face. It gives a name to all of these numbers and statistics,” she said. “That number meant my brother-in-law, and we lost him.”

Lorraine Eloriaga sits near the beach at the Aurora Reservoir, where she comes often with her family. Lately, this quality time has felt a lot more important. Sept. 7, 2020.

Lorraine Eloriaga sits near the beach at the Aurora Reservoir, where she comes often with her family. Lately, this quality time has felt a lot more important. Sept. 7, 2020.

This story has been updated because the original misspelled Troy Lopez’s first name and to reflect that Gary Eloriaga would have been 55. We’re really sorry about that.

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